Felix Stalder on Fri, 21 Jun 2002 17:45:10 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> where has all the bandwith gone?

I recently wrote a piece on the culture of broadband for the London-based
Mute Magazine (http://www.metamute.com) that seems to fit into the current
bandwidth discussion.

Remember the 1990? Technology was supposed to revolutionize everything in
one fell swoop, finally eradicating all those pesky problems that bedevil
modern life. The fulfillment of all our needs and wants was just around the
corner. No one sang the praise of this revolution higher than George
Gilder, the messiah of bandwidth, who dreamed of the "telecosm" with its
"crystal cathedrals of fiber." Unfortunately, that didn't exactly pan out.
Life is still not hassle-free and these days broadband makes headlines with
spectacular bankruptcies and lousy service, rather than as the road to

As usual, the future doesn't descend on us fully formed, rather it arrives
limping. It's a messy mix of incompatible standards, buggy technologies,
and a nagging uncertainty whether the real thing is still coming or whether
it's already over. But one overpriced cable connection, one hard-to-install
DSL or ISDN link, one experimental wireless network at a time, broadband is
becoming an unequally distributed reality; and the contours of this reality
are emerging.

The Internet's architecture used to be based on the model of client and
server. The server runs on a powerful machine that is continuously
connected to the network. It stores the data and services that are
requested by the client. The client is relatively weak and sporadically
connected to the network, a browser displaying the web through a dial-up

Broadband supports a new network architecture: peer-to-peer. Contrary to
the old dial-up, broadband connections are always on, even at home. Add to
this the power of an average PC which has increased to a level that it can
as well double as a simple server and still do all the work of a normal PC.
Both clients and servers are now running on powerful, continuously
connected machines.

File sharing was the first application to define the culture of broadband.
Imagine Napster on dial-up. Impossible.  However, file sharing is not the
only peer-to-peer application. Any aspect of a computer, not just its
content, can be shared or pooled amongst peers in a broadband network. The
sharing of processing power, CPU cycles, is the next obvious example. The
clustering of PCs can bring supercomputing power to people and problems
outside elite research centers. When the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence was abandoned by NASA, seti@home revived it without any of
NASA's high-end machines. Rather, it distributed the number-crunching
across thousands of normal PCs, each doing a small segment of the job in
parallel. Internet users volunteered spare capacities of their machines for
the thrill of peering into deep space and having a cool screen saver. More
such applications are popping up: brute force attacks on encryption keys -
until recently the domains of super expensive super computers - are now
feasible in a network of clustered PCs. All that is needed is a program for
coordinating the distribution of tasks and a pool of volunteers, both not
very hard to find. Other peer-to-peer architectures such as Freenet, an
anonymous publishing network, share storage space across the network,
making it in effect impossible to physically locate files because they move
freely from peer to peer across the network.

Broadband's propensity towards peer-to-peer is good news for anyone
interested in distributed applications. Is this return of the Internet

Of course, not everyone sees broadband as the enabler of decentralized,
bottom-up computing. On the contrary, most of the companies that lay down
the infrastructure have a very different, decidedly top-down vision:
Interactive TV.  For them, broadband means pumping out massive video files,
a kind of rerun of the video-on-demand failures of the 1980s. Across all
technological changes, this persistent vision has one constant component:

The slump in advertisement is not (only) what puts pressure on companies to
charge users for access to their content. It's the broadband environment
itself. Bandwidth, despite all excess capacities, is expensive and pumping
out video streams to the masses eats up a lot of it. Don't expect any
provider without deep pockets to do that for a long time. Contrary to
traditional broadcast, Internet streaming scales poorly. Each new user
costs extra, because each users draws an individual feed. The more users
the higher are the bandwidth costs. Giving away multimedia content is
prohibitively expensive. Moreover, as the media files become richer, the
production costs rise. Shooting a great video tends to be more expensive
than writing a good text.

Both of these factors are driving the slow emergence of the pay-per-view
Internet, despite user reluctance. RealNetworks, for example, claims to
have attracted about 500,000 people for the its pay-per service. For $10
per months, subscribers get access to rich media content from ABCNews.com,
CNN.com, and other majors. The "Passport" platform - a one-stop digital
identity service managed by our friends at Microsoft - is all about making
the pay-per-use vision seamless and "user friendly." Pass me the popcorn,

As the content companies begin to implement pay-per-use services, they want
to know a lot more about their users: where are they going, how long are
they staying there, are they paying for content, or engaging in "piracy?"
Thanks to mergers and alliances content providers and ISPs have become
closely aligned, if not the same altogether. AOL Time Warner is, perhaps,
the most extreme case, but it is representative for this general trend of
convergence. This comes in handy for monitoring the users' online behaviour
for billing purposes.

It also helps to construct "walled gardens", that is, deliberately divide
the network into favoured and disadvantaged zones. One way of building such
walls is to make access to services offered by the same conglomerate or its
corporate partners faster than to those offered by competitors. This can be
done with the help of a new generation of "intelligent" routers that
enables the network owners to deliver some data packets faster than others.
For instance, Time magazine might load faster than Newsweek for AOL
customers in the future. While this is not out-right censorship, it will
certainly affect browsing patterns, particularly since, the manipulation is
virtually invisible to the end user. Whether or not providers are allowed
to twist access in such ways depends a lot on regulation. Cable companies,
for example, tend to be are under little or no obligation to treat all
traffic equally, whereas telecom companies have traditionally been bound by
laws to act as "common carriers" that must provide the same quality of
service to everyone.

Another potentially ugly side of broadband culture is paranoia. With home
computers permanently connected to the network, a whole new class of
Internet users can become targets of malicious hackers. Most users lack the
skills to secure their own machine. They are especially at risk to have
their machines compromised and, for example, turned into launching pads for
more serious attacks. Here's where the paranoia sets in. As more users feel
threatened by something they essentially do not understand, popular support
could increase for though new law enforcement measures. For the majority of
users, it will be easier to support harsher penalties than to maintain
complex firewalls. The overhyped threat of hackers can easily be turned
into a more general attack on civil liberties online. Together, the push
towards pay-per-use and an escalating fight against "hackers" and "pirates"
might squeeze privacy out of the emerging culture altogether.

The contours sketched here don't add up to a coherent picture. The culture
of broadband is still emerging, rather than already fully formed. To some
degree, distributed peer-to-peer services and pay-per-use services are
conflicting with each other. Even after being acquired by Bertelsman,
Napster is still off the wires, because the underlying conflict between
freedom and control is hard to resolve. Technologies and their applications
are still in search of a stable configuration. However, concerted action
will be necessary to support the good, avoid the bad and battle the ugly.

Les faits sont faits.

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